Do We Really Need a Good Samaritan Law in China?

September 1, 2011

A very hot legal topic these days concerns so-called Good Samaritans, people who assist others with medical emergencies. The typical situation involves someone lying on the street, a victim of an accident, a heart attack, etc. Will that person receive assistance, or will he/she be ignored by passers-by?

The issue became very prominent in 2006 with the Peng Yu case:

On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing, an eastern China city. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that “according to common sense”, it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, “according to what one would normally do in this case”, Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check.

No surprise that many people felt that Peng Yu’s case was not handled correctly, and that the decision would lead to a chilling effect on the willingness of people to act as Good Samaritans in the future. Some statistics published subsequently have bolstered that opinion.

Every time a new case crops up, as happened this past Monday, the public furor usually includes two “solutions.” First, since these cases are, to some people, evidence of society’s moral shortcomings, the ‘obvious’ fix is a renewed emphasis on moral teaching (in schools, at home, etc.). Second, because China’s legal system seems unable to properly respond to these incidents, new legislation is required.

Let’s take a look at the call for a legal solution. What if China passed some sort of Good Samaritan Law? This seems to be an attractive possibility to some commentators, but I think there are some important limitations that are being overlooked.

What is a Good Samaritan Law? It’s legislation that provides for legal immunity for certain categories of individuals who respond to emergencies. In many jurisdictions, it only includes so-called “first responders,” people like firefighters, police and emergency medical service providers. The law protects against lawsuits being filed after the emergency services have been provided, with plaintiffs usually alleging that the service provider did their job poorly or exacerbated the medical condition.

What about private individuals?

In other jurisdictions, the category is more broad. In response to a celebrated case in California, the government there passed a revision to its Good Samaritan Law that focused protection not on the type of person involved but the services they were providing. In other words, if someone was helping out during an emergency, they would be protected whether they were a firefighter or a private citizen. The seminal case there involved someone who pulled a co-worker out of a car crash; the victim later alleged that the act of “yanking” her out of the car led to, or worsened, her injuries.

Is this sort of law what we need in China?

Let’s take a look at Monday’s case, involving an old woman and a now-vindicated bus driver:

Seeing her on the ground with her ruined tricycle nearby, Yin pulled his bus over, stepped off together with a ticket taker and helped the woman to stand up. He left the scene only after a villager who was acquainted with Shi came to pick her up.

The woman, whose head was injured and who was sent to the hospital, reported the accident to the police afterward, claiming that it was the bus driver who had knocked her over.

A classic case, much like what happened to Peng Yu in 2006. But would a Good Samaritan law have helped?

Keep in mind that with the California case I mentioned, and with most Good Samaritan laws, the issue of the intent of the service provider is not at issue. In other words, the controversy is not about whether the person was trying to help, but rather whether the assistance was provided in a negligent manner.

That is not what happened with Peng Yu or this week’s incident, both of which involved intentional misstatements or fraud. The complainant in these cases is not alleging negligence at all, but that the other party was responsible for the underlying injury.

Therefore, in my opinion, these cases are quite distinguishable from one another. These infamous China cases are not really classic Good Samaritan situations at all, insofar as laws granting immunity are concerned.

And you can see the problem here. Even if a Good Samaritan law were in place, how would a judge grant immunity to a person when the facts are not even clear whether he/she was assisting the injured person or actually caused the injury in the first place?

The underlying problem here is the fraud, the lying, and it comes down to a he said/she said. There is no way to remedy that completely via a legislative fix. It all comes down to available facts and witness credibility. One way to approach this problem is to gather as much evidence as possible via increased surveillance. With respect to Monday’s bus incident, the driver was ultimately exonerated by video footage from a camera installed on the bus itself.

This conclusion may not be to everyone’s liking, but to solve China’s Good Samaritan problem, perhaps we don’t need new law, just more cameras.

12 thoughts on “Do We Really Need a Good Samaritan Law in China?

  1. slim

    “The underlying problem here is the fraud, the lying…”

    I am always struck by how many of the issues taken up by you, or others like China Law Blog, boil down to basic ethics, or (more often) lack thereof.

  2. S.K. Cheung

    What you need is more Chinese people with more morals. These guys make US ambulance chasers look like angels. Or China needs a better social safety net such that injured individuals are not so worried about how they’ll pay the medical bills that they’ll accuse whomever they could plausibly get their dirty hands on, even if it is an out-and-out lie. Or maybe some real and stiff consequences for those who make fraudulent accusations, like the old woman in the example.

    When the people who stop to help are not accused of helping incompetently, but are actually being falsely accused of perpetrating the initlal injury to begin with, then it no longer has anything to do with Good Samaritans.

    A few bad apples ruin it for everyone. But in an environment where there are obviously some bad apples, who in their right mind would stop to help anybody? At the very least, potential good samaritans would have to canvass for witnesses to first establish that they are not to blame for the injury, before even beginning to contemplate helping a stranger.

  3. oldchinahand

    Mrs. Shi should be sued for fraud. I know she’s an elderly peasant woman, but still, she should be made an example of. Sha ji xia hou.

    The default mindset in China is “ignore other’s plight, don’t get involved lest you be swept up too”. If you doubt me just spend some time walking around any city in China – you’ll see plenty of accidents or situations where people need help but are ignored by all passersby.

    Good Samaritan’s are scarce in China as it is, and people like Mrs. Shi only drive the few potential Good Samaritan’s to never consider helping their fellow man in need.

    1. Stan Post author

      You know what’s interesting? I don’t think she can be sued for “normal” fraud. She did not cheat anyone re: a business transaction. On the other hand, there should be some kind of other charge. Anyone know?

      1. Robert Park

        How about slander or libel? If there are consequences experienced by the defendant (eg. lost job due to the poor publicity experienced by the employer, spouse divorced because couldn’t bear with the shame, etc), would be even easier? Although I’m guessing that would be pretty rare for such small cases like this.

        1. Stan Post author

          Yeah, that would work, but as you say, only applicable to a narrow range of cases. There’s gotta be a more obvious choice here . . .

  4. asiequana

    Even if there was a law is the legal system in China itself really capable of reasonably interpreting and applying it?

    My information is only thrid party but I’ve been told it isn’t even close.

    1. Stan Post author

      The answer is yes it does, and yes it can. China’s judicial system has many shortcomings, but don’t believe anyone who says that it’s completely worthless. Those folks either have an agenda or are stuck in the 1980s.

      1. Stu

        The Peng Yu case does much to point out those shortcomings. As reported, it sounds like there was far too little evidence to reach that verdict, and yet a verdict was reached. On the other hand, the account of it here actually makes the judge seem more reasonable: being the first to act could hardly be evidence of guilt, but sticking around the hospital at least calls for some explanation.

        Also on judges: from my (layman’s) point of view, one of the most interesting things about Chinese courts is their obvious use to make political points. After the Peng Yu case I would expect judges to lean heavily in the opposite direction and to take the side of the ‘helper’, because that’s what the government wants to encourage.

        1. Stan Post author

          To be honest, I don’t know that there is a government “position” on this issue. The only relevant thing I know for sure is that litigation is not harmonious and disputes should be settled whenever possible out of court. If that means paying someone off who makes a false accusation, perhaps so be it.

  5. Hannah

    The Peng Yu case was totally bogus, like you said, but what most people don’t know is that they later found evidence that he did in fact push the woman over. He had call 011 or whatever the number is and said in a panicked tone that he needed help, he had just pushed over an old woman at the bus stop and hurt her badly. This was not reported to the public because the powers that be wanted the case dead and buried. Granted, this does not change the fact that the original verdict was one of the worst in modern Chinese history. Just interesting.

    A Good Samaritan Law is not a bad idea. The legal system needs to work in order for it to work, though. :-/